The NFL Drops the Hammer, and Sends a Message

The severity of the NFL’s Deflategate punishment for Tom Brady and the Patriots was one of the harshest rebukes ever to an alltime great player, and a signal to the other 31 teams that it does not play favorites. Brady and the Pats must now weigh their options
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Initial reaction to the Tom Brady/Patriots deflated-footballs ruling by the NFL Monday: Stunning. Borderline astonishing.

The four-game ban for Brady for not fully cooperating with the Ted Wells investigation wasn’t surprising. But after Wells absolved the organization and in particular coach Bill Belichick of any wrongdoing, the league still took first- and fourth-round draft picks from the Patriots and hit them with the biggest team fine in NFL history, $1 million. That’s the knockout punch.

Brady, as predicted, will appeal his sanction, according to his agent, Don Yee, who said the NFL’s ban “is ridiculous and has no legitimate basis.” The appeal will be heard by commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee, and it’s certainly possible that beyond that Brady could take the matter outside the league to the courts. There, the NFL has had a poor recent record. So there’s no guarantee that Brady will have to sit four games. There’s no guarantee he’ll sit any, with opening day four months away.

The ruling left a multitude of stories in its wake. The overriding one was the severity of the punishment. The NFL equated an apparent scheme (and I say apparent, because the Wells report did not produce proof of it) to slightly underinflate footballs to some of the worst discipline cases in league history. That seemed to enrage New England owner Robert Kraft, who waited almost four hours Monday night before commenting on the sanction: “Today’s punishment ... far exceeded any reasonable expectation. It was based completely on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence.” Kraft also said that Brady “has our unconditional support. Our belief in him has not wavered.”

But another storyline I found interesting was what, inside the letter that league executive vice president Troy Vincent wrote to the Patriots, was actually being said to the other 31 teams in the league. The crushing harshness contained this message to the rest of the NFL that Goodell wanted to send: We do not play favorites.

Wrote Vincent to the Patriots: “The key consideration in any case like this is that the playing rules exist for a reason, and all clubs are entitled to expect that the playing rules will be followed by participating teams. Violations that diminish the league's reputation for integrity and fair play cannot be excused simply because the precise impact on the final score cannot be determined.”

A quick poll of three officials of other clubs in the hours after the ruling found a mixed reaction. One top club official thought the penalty was excessive because there was no definitive proof in the Wells report that Brady either authorized the deflation of footballs or knew precisely that they had been deflated. Another said he was heartened to see the league treat the Patriots with an iron fist, though Kraft has been a close confidant of Goodell. A third said he and others in his organization were surprised by the severity of the punishment. “Way over the top,” he said. “Draconian. I thought the league went too far.” There was a no-joy-in-Mudville tone with these officials. Two of them said virtually the same thing—that this was a sad day for football.

* * *

The Patriots, clearly, will be in fighting mode over the decision. Club officials had privately maintained their innocence and were fiercely defensive regarding Brady. Last week’s statement from Kraft was one part anger, one part despondence, one part defiance. That hadn't changed as of Monday night. He had said he would take whatever medicine the league dished out, but on Monday night he had to be considering his options (though they are few).

But the biggest loser in the case was not Kraft, or his Patriots. It was Brady. Forever more, he’ll have to live, fairly or unfairly, with having been called a cheater by the NFL office.

Think of how few all-time greats have been slammed the way the league just slammed Brady. In 1963 NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended future Hall of Famer Paul Hornung for the season for gambling. Three years later Rozelle threatened Joe Namath with a ban if he didn’t divest his interest in a New York bar with mob ties. Lawrence Taylor got a four-game ban for substance abuse in the ’80s. But how many players in Brady’s galaxy have had their integrity and honor questioned the way his was by the NFL on Monday? That’s why Yee and Brady should be expected to put the gloves on and fight this ban all the way up to opening night on Sept. 10, when New England begins defense of its Super Bowl title with a game against Pittsburgh in Foxboro.

As Vincent wrote in his letter to Brady: “Your actions as set forth in the report clearly constitute conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football. The integrity of the game is of paramount importance to everyone in our league and requires unshakable commitment to fairness and compliance with the playing rules. Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public’s confidence in the game is called into question.”

As proud a man as Brady is, that’s got to be the biggest slap in the face in his 38-year life.

The NFL released the Wells report last Wednesday and had five days to ponder its discipline. It’s clear from the NFL’s ruling that four factors were vital in the decision:

  • A load of circumstantial evidence. The league based the discipline on many incriminating but not wholly indictable pieces of evidence, among them some text messages that had one of the Patriots employees call himself “the Deflator.” But as I wrote Monday, Yee and his team will clearly bring up the borderline measurement of the Patriots’ footballs at halftime of the AFC Championship Game Jan. 19. Officials used two gauges at halftime. On page 113 of the Wells report, after a description of the scientific Ideal Gas Law, Wells says that the Patriots footballs should have measured between 11.32 psi and 11.52 psi. The average of all 22 readings was 11.30 psi … two-one-hundredths lower what the Ideal Gas Law would have allowed for balls that started the day at the Patriots’ level of 12.5 psi. The Brady camp will surely argue that this case never should have been brought forth because of how close the Patriots’ footballs were to the minimum level.
  • A perceived lack of cooperation from Brady and the Patriots—and being misled by Brady. Because Ted Wells, or the NFL’s designated investigative arm, does not have subpoena power, the league will look down upon a person or organization for not cooperating fully in a probe of that team. Clearly, that’s what Goodell ruled here. When Brady wouldn’t turn over his cell phone for forensic examination, that was viewed as a lack of cooperation. When the Patriots would not make assistant equipment manager John Jastremski available for an additional interview at Wells’ request, that was viewed as a lack of cooperation. Vincent’s letter to the Patriots said Brady balked at surrendering his information “despite being offered extraordinary safeguards by the investigators to protect unrelated personal information … It remains significant that the quarterback of the team failed to cooperate fully with the investigation.” Vincent also clearly felt that Brady misled the Wells team “by providing testimony that the report concludes was not plausible and contradicted by other evidence.”
  • Past offense. In 2007 the team and Belichick were sanctioned a total of $750,000 and docked a first-round draft choice for illegally videotaping coaching signals on the opposing sidelines. “Under the integrity of the game policy,” wrote Vincent, “this prior violation of competitive rules was properly considered in determining the discipline in this case.”
  • The competitive-advantage factor. Whether it mattered—and the Patriots beat the Colts 45-7 in the title game, so clearly the outcome wouldn’t have been different—the NFL didn’t care. Anything that gives a team a competitive edge by cheating will be slammed, even if, apparently, the final proof isn’t there.

“We will appeal,” Yee said in his statement, “and if the hearing officer is completely independent and neutral, I am very confident the Wells Report will be exposed as an incredibly frail exercise in fact-finding and logic.”

Brady’s legacy, at least in part, depends on the success of that appeal.

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